Movie Reviews: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Apologies for the lack of reviews lately.  Call it burnout or just a need for a year end break, but I just sort of lacked the motivation to file reviews for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Anna and the Apocalypse, They Shall Not Grow Old, Aquaman, and Bumblebee.  Maybe I’ll try to file a joint review for them all at some point mostly for posterity, but the further each of them gets away and with two of them already out of theaters, the probability of such continues to decrease.  I couldn’t let the chance though for the last serious Best Picture nominee contender (Gold Derby also gives Mary Poppins Returns a shot, but unless that pulls in some nominations, I am not forcing myself to see that) to go unreviewed, so here we are.

Director Barry Jenkins broke out big with his second film Moonlight, earning an Oscar for his screenplay and a nomination for his direction as well as the film itself winning for Best Picture.  It was a somewhat surprising win, if largely for its subject matter which tackled a queer, very Black story without resorting to the typical Oscar baiting tricks that are typically required of Black stories for them to get noticed (why hello Green Book, didn’t notice you standing over there with your Golden Globes) and on a very low budget.  This is actually the second film to be a follow-up to a Best Picture winner after the earlier if somewhat disappointing Widows.

If Beale Street Could Talk is adapted from the James Baldwin novel of the same name from 1974 and is a reference to W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues“.  Jenkins again adapts the screenplay, this time by himself, maintaining the original ’70s New York City setting of the novel.  At the center of the story is Tish (played by Kiki Layne) a 19 year old woman.  Her boyfriend is the 22 year old Fonny, a man who she had been friends with since childhood but only recently had gotten together with as something much more.  Their love is a source of warmth and hope throughout the movie and they are such a wonderfully sweet couple.  Their love however is threatened as the movie opens with Fonny being sent to prison accused of rape.

Dealing with the subject of rape is a tricky one.  Even trickier is dealing with the subject of a man falsely accused of rape in the year 2018.  Marshall had a similar issue to deal with as both were heavily rooted in racial prejudices that discriminate against Black people and whose legal system is designed to imprison America’s Black population, yet still had an inherently uphill battle to make us believe the word of the man over the word of a woman.  It’s approach (albeit one is was afforded a bit more wiggle room by not being based on a true story) is much different with the film itself never questioning whether the woman was raped.  It’s well handled and even makes for some powerful moments that prove just how essential the nature of the crime was to the story being told.

Adding to their difficulties is that Tish finds out she is pregnant not long after he is locked up with Fonny’s kid.  Even facing this situation (19, unmarried, pregnant, and with a boyfriend accused of rape and looking at a long time away in prison) she finds her family nothing but supportive and happy for her, willing to do whatever for her and to help try and clear Fonny’s name.  It’s a refreshing and hopeful sight, seeing a positive Black family portrayed on the screen that keeps the present day scenes from being too bleak.  They are interspersed with scenes of how the two lovers came together as more than just friends and their time together.  They are scenes which add even more warmth to the story even as the two face discrimination.

Every aspect of the film is immaculately produced from the direction and cinematography which frequently casts such lovely frames of its actors to the beautiful score by Moonlight composer Nicholas Britell (especially its use of strings).  The acting as well from the very deep roster of talent is fantastic.  Layne and Stephen James (Race) are stellar as the main couple with the former absolutely radiant.  Regina King, Colman Domingo (Fear the Walking Dead), and Teyonah Parris (Dear White People) are all a delight as her family with the first two especially stepping up big when called on for their big dramatic moments.  That’s not even forgetting the work of Michael Beach (Third Watch, Aquaman), Aunjanue Ellis (Undercover Brother), Brian Tyree Henry (who in a short time on screen manages some of the best moments of the film), Diego Luna (Y tu mamá también), Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones), Emily Rios (The Bridge), and Dave Franco, most of whom show up for a scene or two and yet leave a huge impact.

Jenkins’s third film is a refinement of all that he did in Moonlight and an improvement on that film in just about every respect.  It’s a special film that like his last succeeds in no small part by resisting the urges of so many of its ilk.  It’s a romantic drama that knows how to balance the hope and the joy with the bitter difficulties of life, but like its characters, it is determined to never let them hold it back from doing what it takes to do what needs to be done.  For a movie with such weighty themes and depressing realizations that the inequities that cause such issues to persist have far from dissipated, it is remarkably optimistic and at times like these, it’s just the kind of balance I could use from a movie.